Fountain Hills’ finances are in order, its growth is managed and the infrastructure is being prudently maintained.
Yet Town Manager Tim Pickering is taking criticism from many sides. The signatures of more than 600 residents are on a petition demanding his departure, albeit in a year. A major developer publicly excoriated him for making decisions about its land with no consultation.
So how does Pickering maintain a calm demeanor despite the raucous Town Council meetings and letters to the editor written with poison pens?
“As a public official, you’re always the center of attention,” Pickering recently said. “And people expect that you conduct yourself in a very professional way, and I think I always do.”
His detractors say otherwise, which is how Pickering finds himself in an odd position with the townspeople and council to whom he answers.
The common complaint against Pickering, the top unelected official of Fountain Hills, concerns his perceived poor communications skills. But even critics praise his financial acumen.
His defenders point to how well the town is run, yet admit Pickering hasn’t won over residents, to say the least.
“They can’t point to anything he’s done wrong,” Mayor Wally Nichols said. “They just don’t like his personality.”
At a wild council meeting in June, Nichols was threatened with a recall unless he moved to dump the town manager. Nichols is among four members of the council whose terms expire in May, and already residents are speaking of the town manager as a political liability.
One of Pickering’s biggest missteps of late came when he made changes to the Senior Services division.
His proposed budget called for replacing two popular part-time employees with a full-time manager. The seniors said they were blindsided by this prospect, as no one from Town Hall had warned them.
A personnel change that needed a delicate touch to explain instead was handed down with no explanation at all.
“Could we have improved communication? Absolutely, and we’re going to work on it,” Pickering said.
One of the employees let go, Stephanie Haddy, said she most likely wouldn’t apply for the full-time position because “I think (Pickering) hates me.”
If that’s the case, a member of the Senior Services Advisory Commission thinks he knows why.
“She stood up to (Pickering),” Dan Coughenour said, “and I don’t think the guy’s strong enough to have people stand up to him.”
In May, MCO Custom Properties decried the lack of communication from Pickering over a proposed access route to the McDowell Mountain Preserve. Shawn Hurwitz, chairman of MCO’s parent company, MCO Properties, accused Pickering of keeping his company in the dark with the intent of ramming through the council the placement of a trailhead in an undesired location.
“Unfortunately, this is only one instance in a long pattern of behavior,” Hurwitz told the council.
According to an Arizona State University expert in municipal governments, Pickering’s high profile isn’t common among his peers.
“Often, the manager is the first to go when there is a sharp change in the composition of the council and in the direction it wishes to go, or when something goes badly wrong even though the manager may not be responsible or fully responsible,” said David R. Berman, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute.
“It is rare, however, for the manager to bring on the problem and become the center of attention himself.”
When Pickering arrived in September 2002, there was bad news in the town’s financial books. The reserve fund had shrunk to its lowest level in years, while the number of town employees crept upward. Perhaps Pickering’s personality provided what was needed for whipping the town into shape.
His reputation, earned at his previous job in Missouri, was that of an abrasive manager who got things done. How abrasive? Of 44 workers for Olivette, Mo., who responded to a survey about Pickering, 32 said they regarded him negatively, according to a 2001 story in a St. Louis publication.
With Pickering wielding the hatchet, there were cuts in Fountain Hills’ manpower and services, and major projects were delayed. “Heck, we even had to reduce the time we ran the fountain,” Pickering recalled with a chuckle.
Now, staff members’ hours are down 18 percent from Pickering’s first year. Also reduced is the town’s property tax rate, and the reserve fund is stable. Of the current $30.9 million budget, 23 percent is dedicated to street improvements, sidewalks and parks, and purchases of major equipment.
“As stewards of public money, we must be very frugal and keep our eye on the financial ball,” Pickering said. Nichols believes Pickering would have been aided by a full-time town spokesman. Fountain Hills has had two public information officers resign since early 2006; before that, Pickering took on that responsibility.
“It creates a hardship for us to calm the public down,” Nichols said. On the average, a manager of a municipality lasts about six years in that job, says the International City/County Management Association. Pickering is close to finishing his fifth year here, although he was a finalist for Flagstaff’s city manager position before deciding last week he didn’t want the job.
When Pickering was hired, Fountain Hills needed a forceful leader to set things right. Now that the town is running well, it’s a question worth asking whether Pickering has worn out his welcome. “You would have to ask the community,” he said. “I don’t believe so. “I still have a lot to do for Fountain Hills.”